You took a nap today, and you woke up in charge of the 2020 campaign of the Republican party of Texas. Congratulations! Here’s your badge and your gun. Also, condolences: There’s not much time left. There’s little more than a month to go before early voting starts, and the fundamentals of the thing are set. This is an election defined by a deeply unpopular incumbent president, a terrible economy, and nearly 200,000 Americans dead from a global pandemic that could have been mitigated. You gotta think carefully about how to make a dent. Donald Trump and John Cornyn are probably going to win the state, even if it’s by a disappointing margin. What you need to be most worried about is the state House.
If Democrats win control, it’ll be because the GOP firewall failed in a small number of traditionally center-right, suburban districts that have drifted left during the Trump presidency. In one such district northwest of Houston in 2018, Republican Dwayne Bohac won by just 47 votes. It and other districts are set to flip. Shifting the margin just a few tenths of a point, by reminding disgruntled Republicans about the threat liberals pose to public order, civilization, and your plumbing—and getting their minds off our beloved president—could be enough to save the day for Team Red. And—I simply can’t stress this enough—you must get their minds off our beloved president. As Republicans are happy to admit behind closed doors, he’s poison in swing districts.
That dynamic, more than any kind of practical policy consideration, is behind the rush of Republican elected officials in Texas now “backing the blue.” In a press conference Thursday, Governor Greg Abbott, joined by Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, gathered at the headquarters of the Austin Police Association to sign a “Back the Blue” pledge, an agreement from signees to “oppose any efforts to defund the police and to show my support for the brave law enforcement officers who risk their lives to protect and serve.”
Accompanying the brief pledge, which Abbott urged Democratic officials to sign—no notable ones seem to have taken the bait—are a series of policy proposals from the governor’s office intended to punish the city council of Austin for voting to decrease the city’s police department budget by $150 million last month. (The City of Austin shifted about a third of its $434 million police budget to social services, including violence prevention programs and housing.) Abbott’s pledge is clearly symbolic, but look closely at the proposals, which seem superficially extraordinary and far-reaching, and you will soon discover that there is actually nothing of substance in them either. It can only be understood as political theater. Good political theater, but political theater nonetheless.
The goal in redirecting APD funding was to take that money and invest in a new public safety model, intended to take over some of the demands on the Austin Police Department’s time and resources. In America, police are often called on to be social workers, to the detriment of both cops, who don’t have the requisite training, and the public. Maybe the city council’s decision to hire more actual social workers will prove to be a bad idea, or maybe it will be a good one. Austinites will then hold their elected officials accountable or reward them, respectively. That’s how this whole thing is supposed to work. Cops work for the city, and the city is run by those who live in it.
Governor Greg Abbott also lives in it, however. And his hammer came down almost immediately. “Defunding police puts residents in danger and it invites lawlessness into our communities,” he said at a press conference in Fort Worth convened after the council’s vote. He proposed that the Legislature should dictate that any Texas city that reduced the funding of its police departments would have its ability to increase property taxes frozen.
At the presser, Abbott said that Austin had seen the greatest percentage rise in homicides in any city in the country. That was scaremongering. Most big cities have seen an increase in violent crime in this endlessly terrible year—no one can say exactly why, but the imploding economy and quarantine are two likely suspects. The reason the percentage rise is high in Austin is because the number of homicides that take place is very low to start with. (There were nine more homicides in the first half of this year than there were last year, representing a 64 percent rise.) Abbott then shared a tweet urging Texans traveling to Austin to “enter at your own risk.” In fact, Austin was and remains one of the safest big cities in the nation, going by the homicide rate.
A week later, Abbott doubled down, warning that the state could take over the entire Austin Police Department, which would be an extraordinary imposition of state power. On Wednesday, he released his “Back the Blue” in Texas pledge on his personal website, asking members of the public to sign en masse. (This also doubled as a way to collect emails and peg them to a zip code, useful information for a campaign.) He signed it at the ceremony on Thursday, while announcing a new proposal: cities that were found to have “defunded” their police departments would lose the ability to annex—incorporating outlying areas into the city proper—and areas that had been annexed before should be allowed to secede, he said. (The Legislature has already greatly limited annexation.) This, along with the rest of his blitz, Abbott said, “should leave Austin with no choice but to restore the cuts.”
When Abbott last threatened to sic state troopers on Austin as part of his previous offensive against the city, regarding the problem of homelessness, I wrote a somewhat, uh, passionate defense of my birthplace against state tyranny. But it’s hard to feel much of anything about this. It’s too transparent.
The proposals don’t seem like they’re intended to become law. Take the one that would effectively prohibit cities from ever lowering police budgets, lest their tax revenue be frozen. That might have a perverse effect, one police departments could come to regret: cities would be reluctant to raise police budgets if they knew they could never decrease them. In point of fact, there was a debate about police funding last session, and Abbott didn’t “back the blue.” Abbott endorsed Senate Bill 2, which aimed to restrict cities’ ability to raise revenue from property taxes. Police organizations understood that this would squeeze their budgets, which represent a huge portion of municipal spending. So the state’s biggest police association, CLEAT, opposed it vehemently, siding with cities against the governor and characterizing the bill as an “attack on local control.”
It’s also difficult to imagine how these proposals would even be translated into the text of a law the Legislature might debate. These are unusual conditional restrictions on local spending that subvert the power of local officials and will likely lead to legal challenges. As reporter Scott Braddock of Quorum Report has noted, the fact that a proposal is nonsense doesn’t mean that the Legislature won’t pass it. But if Democrats have even a strong minority in the House it would be difficult to get through. There are still enough Republicans who don’t like Abbott’s city-bashing and worry about the precedent it sets.
What the state GOP is really doing with the pledge is trying to generate an issue to “define” this election that’s not Donald Trump. “Defunding the police,” when polled, is a very unpopular idea. Naturally, that’s the terrain Republicans want to fight on. Running against “defunding the police” fires up Republicans with Thin Blue Line flags, worries wealthy crossover voters who are animated by property values, and drives a wedge in the Democratic coalition, as politicians rush to disassociate themselves from phrasing that has become a touchstone for activists. As an added bonus, some of those swing House districts are in the Austin suburbs.
Will it work? I am dubious that anything can make this election about something other than the fact that Donald Trump, former host of The Apprentice, is the president of the United States of America. But it may shade some districts redder, and that could be enough to throw the Republican House Caucus a lifeline. It’s potentially a shrewd play. Just don’t expect it to come to much after the evening of November 3.
There’s one more thing to note about Thursday’s press conference. Attorney General Ken Paxton, speaking after Abbott and Bonnen, turned to the cameras and said with a straight face that it was “a sad day in our city when police officers have more fear of doing their job than criminals do of committing crime.” As a fellow Austinite, I found his embrace of “our city” quite touching. If General Paxton wants to strengthen the spirit of law and order here, he is quite welcome to move his felony securities fraud trial back from his home turf in Collin County to the Travis County courthouse.